Shift in power means lost jobs on Capitol Hill

January 02, 1995|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- As the 104th Congress arrives here this week for what some hope will be a new beginning, thousands of House and Senate workers are also starting over -- looking for new jobs after years, sometimes decades, on Capitol Hill.

The political tidal wave that brought Republicans to power in both houses of Congress has swept away the jobs of aides who were lulled into security by four decades of seemingly indestructible Democratic control. For them, this week marks not the first day of a new era in Congress but their final hours on Capitol Hill.

Some of the unemployed are experienced Democratic chiefs of staff and senior aides making more than $100,000. Many more are younger staffers or lower-paid clerical workers and secretaries far from the limelight of power and politics. Altogether, more than 2,000 congressional workers are expected to lose their jobs.

Some come from the personal staffs of defeated or retiring legislators, as after any election. Many others come from congressional committees, whose staffs have been turned upside down by the switch in party control. The party with a majority in either house has the lion's share of committee staffs, meaning drastic cuts in the number of slots available to Democrats, now in the minority.

"Personally, it's a disaster," said David Caskey, 43, of Hyattsville, jobless after working on Capitol Hill for 19 years.

"I'm depressed," Mr. Caskey said. "But I don't want to come across as a whiner. I'm not any different from the people who've lost their jobs in Dundalk or at London Fog. The only thing different is the method of separation. We were fired by the voters."

Mr. Caskey's wife, Mimi Engler, another congressional employee, is clinging to the hope that her job in the House clerk's office will not be cut.

"Originally, we were told we might be terminated, but then we were asked to come back on Jan. 3 to see what happens," Ms. Engler said.

Ms. Engler, like some others in limbo, doesn't work directly for a member of Congress of either party. But Republicans are trimming down many offices while hiring new staff in others, affecting even veteran workers who have little political involvement. For some, it might be several months before they know their fate.

"Right now, I have a job, but nobody really knows," Ms. Engler said.

Already, the couple has pulled their 8-year-old daughter, Rory, out of an after-school care program and switched to the cheapest health care plan available. They also cut back on Christmas gifts.

Like many long-time employees who have been forced out, Mr. Caskey finds himself a few years short of the minimum time needed to qualify for retirement benefits. "I would just like to hang on for five years so I can qualify for retirement," he said. "I feel like I'm trying to hang on in a dying industry, and that's what the government is like today."

For the past few weeks, Mr. Caskey, 43, has spent his time sorting through old papers from his job on the House Rules Committee. Friday was his last day.

"I've already applied for at least a dozen jobs," added Mr. Caskey, who, like many other Hill veterans, is willing to take a pay cut. "I'm making $42,000 now, and I hope not to have to go below $35,000."

Competing with so many other unemployed Democratic aides has forced some people to forget Capitol Hill and look instead to the federal government or the private sector.

"It feels like everyone is applying for the same 20 or 30 jobs," said Josh Becker, 25, press secretary for Democratic Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, defeated in November.

Senior staffers, many of whom are lawyers or have other advanced degrees, are scouring law and lobbying firms in Washington and using the connections they had built up in the private sector. These formerly powerful men and women are finding little demand for job-seeking Democrats in a city where access is everything and Republicans now occupy all the top spots on Capitol Hill.

"People want to hire Republicans," said Gary Hymel, chief lobbyist at the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.

Some aides, like Meg Ryan O'Donnell, are moving elsewhere. A press secretary and administrative assistant for defeated Democratic Rep. Dan Hamburg of California, she's headed to Washington state, where she plans to set up a political consulting business. "I'm taking the big jump," said the 31-year-old Ms. O'Donnell. "It's sad, but it's another door opening for me."

For workers who are older or are in clerical positions, the options appear more limited.

"It's going to be difficult for me, because I'm close to retirement age," said Liz Campbell, 59, a clerk with a House Government Operations subcommittee. "Financially, I have to work. I can't afford to retire."

Just a few doors down, Bennie Williams was wrapping up her work as office manager at another Government Operations panel late last week. "I've worked my way up from the front desk to office manager," said Ms. Williams, who has worked for Congress for more than 20 years. "People in clerical positions will have a more difficult time finding jobs in the private sector making what they are now."

Administrative and clerical workers say privately that they are upset that they, too, are being fired, even though they are not involved in politics or policy decisions. "An office manager isn't involved in political work," Ms. Williams noted.

Staring out of her office at a picture-postcard view of the Capitol, Ms. Williams, 48, worries about how she will support her two children, ages 10 and 14. For now, she explained, "I will have to get by on unemployment and whatever I can muster up."

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